Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Conservation Officer Jeremy Woinarowicz has been named the 2022 DNR Conservation Officer of the Year, which is an annual award presented to an officer for outstanding overall career performance. Col. Rodmen Smith, director of the DNR Enforcement Division, presented awards to Woinarowicz and four other officers earlier this week at Camp Ripley.
Woinarowicz works the Thief River Falls West station, where he’s been since joining the DNR in 2004. His station includes parts of Marshall, Pennington and Polk counties, but he also often covers stations that include the rest of Marshall County, as well as Beltrami and Kittson counties. Before joining the DNR, Woinarowicz spent several years as a police officer in East Grand Forks, Minnesota, and Grand Forks, North Dakota. In addition to his regular duty as a conservation officer to protect Minnesota’s people and natural resources, Woinarowicz spends time every year training the state’s newest conservation officers.
“Jeremy is a highly visible and well-known conservation officer, and we couldn’t ask for a better representative of the DNR,” Smith said. “With Jeremy, you know what you’re going to get day in and day out: A conservation officer who is firm but fair and does his best every day to protect the things Minnesotans care so deeply about.”
In addition, Woinarowicz was named the 2022 Minnesota Wildlife Officer of the Year by the Shikar Safari Club International.
Other Enforcement Division honorees include:
Boat and Water Safety Achievement Award – CO Brice Vollbrecht
CO Brice Vollbrecht, who is stationed in Bemidji, prioritizes time on the water to keep boaters safe. He’s been a CO since 2008 – first in Blackduck, before moving to Bemidji in 2011 – and is a consistent presence on waters in his area as well as on the busiest lakes and rivers throughout the state.
“Throughout his career, Brice has taken tremendous initiative to ensure our lakes and rivers are safe for everyone who uses them,” Smith said. “Almost every boater with whom he interacts rides away with more knowledge about staying safe on the water.”
Waterfowl Enforcement Achievement Award – CO Tom Hutchins
CO Tom Hutchins, who is stationed in Crookston, has been a conservation officer since 2004. During his nearly two-decade career, Hutchins has been a leader in waterfowl-related enforcement and made educating people about the vital importance of habitat a top priority.
“Waterfowl hunters tend to be extraordinarily dedicated to their craft, and that type of dedication is also what it takes to do a great job in the waterfowl-enforcement realm,” Smith said. “Tom does a great job on the education piece, but one of the things that really sets him apart is his willingness to go to those out-of-the-way, hard-to-reach areas where hunters simply don’t expect to see law enforcement officers.”
Willard Munger Wetlands Achievement Award – CO Trent Seamans
CO Trent Seamans, who is stationed in Big Lake and has been a conservation officer since 2015, places a high priority on investigating and resolving complaints and violations related to the wetlands and water resources in his area. He treats all instances of environmental degradation the same, whether there is a simple resolution or other agencies and the courts will need to be involved.
“The conservation officers who win this award have several things in common: They’re able to prioritize, they’re knowledgeable about complex environmental regulations, they’re professional in their dealings with everyone involved, and they’re extremely thorough,” Smith said. “All of those are apt descriptions of Trent.”
Enforcement Education Achievement Award – CO Jake Willis
CO Jake Willis, who is stationed in Brookston and has been a conservation officer since 2016, has prioritized safety education and training since he became a law enforcement officer more than 15 years ago. He works tirelessly to provide outdoor safety education to youth and adults, and is active in training his law enforcement peers to ensure they have the knowledge they need to stay safe while doing their jobs.
“Conservation officers aren’t traditional educators, but teaching is one of the most important roles they play,” Smith said. “There are many people in Minnesota who will be safer going forward because of Jake’s efforts.”
In addition to the awards above, Smith presented five conservation officers with lifesaving awards to recognize the crucial role they played in saving someone’s life. They are:
- COs Anthony Bermel (Babbitt) and Mitch Lawler (Alexandria). They were fishing in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area while off-duty in March 2022 when they received a report of an individual on the same lake possibly having a heart attack. They assisted the victim and rescue personnel, and played key roles in ensuring the victim had quick access to life-saving medical attention.
- COs Dan Starr (Onamia) and Tou Vang (Pierz). Starr was off-duty in May 2022 when he was checking a culvert that had washed out due to heavy rainfall. He happened upon a woman in the cold, rushing water who was holding up the head of a man who was submerged in water up to his head. The man was stuck in an all-terrain vehicle that had flipped on its side into the creek. Starr waded into the water and helped get out the individuals, who had been there nearly two hours and were sapped of strength. He immediately called 911, and Vang was among the first rescue personnel to respond. Vang and other first responders rendered first aid and helped to ensure the man made it to the hospital, where he later recovered.
- CO Joel Heyn (Plainview). Heyn, along with Wabasha County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Jason Bade, responded to a call about an individual who was struggling to swim across Lake Pepin. The individual, who was treading water and floating with his face in the water, refused initial attempts to assist him. Heyn and Bade eventually decided to bring the man aboard their boat, where he appeared exhausted and incoherent. They eventually got him to a waiting ambulance, which delivered him to a hospital.